- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Some inmates at a southeast Mississippi prison have been refusing meals since Monday in what the wife of one prisoner says is a hunger strike over conditions there.

Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Simmons Fisher said Wednesday that 11 inmates at the South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Leakesville were refusing meals.

Wendy Houston wrote in an email that her husband, Derrick Houston, and other inmates in a maximum security unit in the prison’s Area II are protesting. She says more than 11 inmates are involved.

Derrick Houston is one of more than 3,000 inmates held at the prison. Houston is 14 years into a 21-year sentence on Lauderdale County convictions of armed robbery, aggravated assault and escaping jail.

Fisher said inmates began refusing food Monday after being encouraged by an inmate caught with contraband. Fisher said the prison system doesn’t describe such a protest as a hunger strike until inmates have refused meals for 21 days. She said meals are still being delivered and inmates are not being force-fed.

The Clarion-Ledger (https://on.thec-l.com/2nbmfHO) initially reported the story.

The prison has been locked down for weeks, with inmate movements restricted, in part because the prison system is conducting a statewide crackdown on contraband.

“We cannot assume that an incident is isolated, especially in dealing with gang affiliations,” Fisher wrote in an email. “Preventing any harm to staff or inmates greatly outweighs the temporary loss of privileges for individual inmates. It is a matter of safety first for everyone involved.”

Wendy Houston wrote that prisoners have been denied their customary hour a day of exercise time during the lockdown, but Fisher said that is untrue. Houston also listed a number of other complaints, including excessive heat, broken toilets, dark cells, a lack of educational and recreational programs, arbitrary discipline and uneven medical care.

“Their only motive is to seek justice to better their living conditions in confinement,” Houston wrote.

It’s hard to verify claims about what’s going on inside Mississippi state prisons because the Department of Corrections, as a matter of policy, refuses to allow reporters to visit. Some inmates at the privately-run East Mississippi Correctional Facility near Meridian are currently pursuing a lawsuit making similar allegations about poor conditions, and other inmates at the now-closed Walnut Grove Correctional Facility sued successfully, with a federal judge finding juveniles were abused.

State Rep. Roun McNeal, a Leakesville Republican, described conditions at South Mississippi Correctional Institution as “really difficult.”

“Staffing is difficult,” McNeal wrote in an email. “Contraband - particularly cell phones - makes life more dangerous for staff and residents. Area II is a very large general population facility. Maybe as large as any general population area in the country. I don’t envy anyone working there, nor anyone living there.”

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/JeffAmy .

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